All or Nothing

Why is there this perception in our culture that you must do something all the way, be completely immersed in it, and be the best, or it’s not worth doing at all? It’s everything or nothing.

I’ve seen this time and again on a variety of things. Why can’t walking for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week, make everyone happy? This is what science says is great for our health. At least, so say the New England Journal of Medicine. They don’t mess around with faux science there. Why does our collective society look down on walking and instead believe we have to be doing hours of grueling cardio and intense weight lifting before we feel like we’re really excising?

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This does NOT count.

I don’t have an answer for this need for all or nothing, but I’ve seen the same thing in writing.

Stephen King, one of the preeminent writers of our time, wrote a book called On Writing. Yeah, I know, you’ve already heard about it. Maybe even read it. But in that book, he says he writes 2,000 words a day. And, I believe him.

I’ve only read a handful of his books. There’s a reason for that. I’m a coward.

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Please, no! I want to sleep again!

However, that seems to have translated into everyone out there who is writing thinking they need 2,000 words a day, too. I’ve heard it over and over again. Watched people tout this goal. Watched them try to live up to it.

Interesting, though, how few achieve it more than a few days a month. Even more interesting is how many of them stop writing altogether because they “failed” at being a writer. Not mocking them, as I’m not writing 2,000 words a day either. But then, I stopped holding myself to that criteria about 30 seconds after I finished reading Stephen King’s book.

See, he was making that word count as a full time writer. As one of the most prolific writers alive today. As a man at the top of his field.

Trying to hold myself up to that is like trying to hold a flashlight up to the sun. Yeah, I think my writing is pretty good, but there’s only one sun. I can still illuminate the darkness and make people happy without being the sun.

flashlight
I can dream.

Sort of like I can walk thirty minutes a day and still get the health benefits. No, I’m not going to look like a Hollywood celebrity doing it, but then even dedicating myself to exercise isn’t going to accomplish that.

I set my goal at 500 words a day. Yep, 500. It’s enough that words get on the page, but not so much that it’s daunting to even sit down at the computer. And here’s the thing. When I have a goal I’m pretty sure I can achieve, I’m much more likely to start it.  Sometimes, I sit down hoping to eke out 500 words, and I get a 1,000. Sometimes more. But what got my butt in the chair was the knowledge it was just 500.

 

How about you? Do you set smaller goals for yourself and then try to surpass them? Or are you more motivated by larger, grand goals that may be very challenging to reach?

The Power of Stretch Goals to Help You Fail

Most of us who have spent any time in corporate America are familiar with SMART goals. Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Relevant. Time-Based.

 

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Or to look at them and laugh while you pour yourself a glass of wine

Nanowrimo meets all of these.

For those not familiar, Nanowrimo is in the month of November, and writers strive to write fifty-thousand words in thirty days. There are support groups to help get there. Most writers ask spouses to help out with more around the house during the month. I’ve even heard of people pre-making suppers for a month so they can focus on writing.

As you can imagine, this is a massive goal. It equates to roughly 1,700 words a day, every day, during a month that includes Thanksgiving.

For most of us, this is a HUGE stretch goal. Especially if we aren’t used to doing that many words a day.

My personal goal is five-hundred words a day. I’ve found this manageable. I sometimes write more, sometimes less, but it gets books done.

While I support every one who attempts NaNoWriMo, my fear is that it discourages more people than it helps because it is so hard to achieve.

Even if you don’t write, you get how de-motivating a goal you see as impossible is. Or at least, a goal that becomes impossible a little ways into trying to achieveit.

And science agrees with you. Here are seven reasons why unrealistic stretch goals can sometimes make you fail:

  1. You don’t consider your resources –  In the example of NaNoWriMo, you have to consider how many hours a day you actually have to write. If you’re goal is to learn a new language, same thing. How much time do you have? If we assume you sleep seven hours a night, that leaves seventeen hours. Most of us have day jobs, that include a commute. That leaves seven hours. Still, sounds like a lot. Until you remember those seven hours also include exercising, helping the kids with their homework, making dinner, showering, spending time with your spouse, etc. Maybe an hour a day is still realistic, maybe it isn’t. But it’s something to think about.

 

  1. Focused on Short Term – When you set a short term goal, you have to consider the cost of achieving the goal. Let’s say your goal is to rebuild the engine on your classic car in a month. How is your family going to respond to mac & cheese every night (my toddler excluded)? How long does it take to rebuild support from your spouse? The last thing you want is your cheering section at home to become another obstacle you face. Don’t believe me? Imagine if one of your co-workers came to you and said they were taking on a special project, and as such, you’d be expected to stay and work unpaid overtime for the next month.

 

  1. Focus Exclusively on the Goal –   If you focus exclusively on a narrow goal, you can miss other areas that are important. Like editing. Plotting. Character development. Spending a little bit of time on the front end can really help with the story and make the rewriting process a little less painful. And, if the goal is word count, how do you judge editing? Particularly when editing can involve negative word count? Yet, editing is such a vital process of writing.

 

  1. Goal Impresses Rather than Guides –  I’ve seen people like this. “I’m going to do 100 push-ups” is a great goal. But, you don’t go from spending your days playing Mario Kart to doing 100 push-ups. You need a plan with smaller goals. Whatever your ultimate goal, you’ve got some work to do before you get there.

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  1. Failing can be Excusable – When you set unrealistic goals, it’s easy to excuse not meeting them because, well, they weren’t all that achievable. They were a stretch goal, and you weren’t able to stretch that much.

 

  1. Failing becomes Accepted – Once you can be excused for not reaching the goal, failing becomes acceptable. How many people fail to ever be able to do a 5k run that started the process and are totally fine with it?

 

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All of our bosses have set one of these.
  1. Failing becomes Expected – Once failure becomes expected, well, you don’t really have a goal anymore, do you? I know I’ve seen this in corporate America more times than I can count

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So, while goal-setting has a lot of positive effects, it has some dark sides that people don’t always consider.

It gets back to the “attainable” part of SMART goals. Not attainable only when the planets align, but attainable on most days if we push for it.

So, perhaps not the Nanowrimo sprint, but maybe a five-hundred words per day marathon. Yes, it’s going to take 3.5 months to get the same 50,000 words, but perhaps that’s a habit you can maintain without your spouse threatening to throw your computer in the front lawn.

 

How about you? Have you ever found goal-setting to be de-motivating? Or maybe you’re just the opposite and goal setting really inspires you. How do you set your goals? How do you measure success?